I was sitting in a two-man tank, obsolete Dutch tank on the south downs of England, waiting for the invasion and I didn’t realize . . . about all we had between the Nazis and London.
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We had all listened to Mr. Chamberlain and we all knew he had no idea what Hitler was like. And he was talking about peace in our time. I said he's a fine old gentleman, but deluded. A group of us used to commute by a little train to work, so we looked at each other and said, there’s going to be a war, so why don’t we join up now and decide where we’re going to be. So we joined the Territorial Army (that's the same as the Canadian Militia) on January 9th, 1939 where I served until the middle of August 1939.
I was having breakfast when the mailman knocked at the door, which he never used to do. He said, "this is for you" and gave me a blue envelope. I was told to report immediately because I was on the key party for the regiment’s mobilization. So I walked out of my home and didn’t see my family for seven years until I was demobilized from Germany in February, 1946, after 4 1/2 years in the Middle East.
We had no fear, we just laughed at the rumours. They marched us and chased us around the United Kingdom for one and a half years. We guarded airfields, we did all sorts of things. We didn’t have any problem with the invasion and I didn’t realize how serious it was until after the war when I read the histories of what was going on.
In early 1940 I was sitting in a two-man obsolete Dutch tank on the south downs of England, waiting for the invasion and I didn’t realize that we had lost everything at Dunkirk and that what we had was about all that stood between the Nazis and London. They’d have gone through us like a knife through butter.
In August 1941 we sailed from Glasgow for the Middle East, across the North Atlantic and down the South American coast, across to Freetown in Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, up the Red Sea to Egypt arriving in October, after 8 weeks at sea.
The desert was something you’ll have to experience. It’s incredible. And I can understand why three great religions came out of that area. Everybody felt it. I wish you could read some of the poems that were written, and see the affect it had on all sorts of men. It was something very, very, unique.
We used to listen to the German radio in the desert, to a wonderful girl from Stuttgart like our Vera Lynn. It was Lale Andersen who introduced the song 'Lili Marlene', to both the German and the British armies. At night after maintenance was done, we made a circle of tanks called a leaguer, and then we’d go down to the signals truck and tune into Stuttgart or somewhere and listen to her. She was good.
We used to travel 200 yards apart and with two hundred yards between vehicles and then go into close leaguer at night after battle was over and when the maintenance was done. We all came in with a guard outside against surprise attack and you’d lie there and feel you could touch the stars. It’s still my favourite part of the world.
We had the most terrible lousy canisters and they always leaked before we got halfway up the desert. And the Germans had magnificent Jerry cans. If you could lay your hands on one of those, it was worth its weight in gold. They used them for water and gasoline. They were the finest equipped army I’ve ever seen. And the best trained.
We moved at night up to the Libyan border. The tanks were all disguised as trucks, with frames put over them. What did I feel? I don’t know, fear I guess, the unknown, we were all terrified. And funnily enough the night before we went in, what we thought was artillery was a tremendous thunderstorm. Our officers and other men went ahead through a great wire fence that Mussolini had built from the Mediterranean right down to the Sand Sea, about 12 feet high and 12 feet thick, to keep the Libyans out. We had to cut through that. And some of our people went ahead and put down caches or deposits of gasoline and food and water. We went in on November 18th, 1941. It was an incredible sight. There were, I don’t know, 100,000 men at least, all streaming into Libya. It was absolutely amazing. We went in through a small Fort called Ridotta Maddalena, I think it was, one of Mussolini’s forts. And there were hundreds and hundreds of vehicles, all streaming with great clouds of dust behind them. And of course, we all got lost.. My crew and I decided we’d spend the night with a Bofors gun battery, that was the Swedish anti-aircraft gun. Two small groups (about 3-4 men each) also got lost so we spent the night together. And then the next day we all went off and tried to find our respective units.
And I’ll tell you, it was so fluid because you could never secure your southern flank, it could always be turned. And I remember one day we’d had a few quiet days and were open spaced. We’d just had breakfast and were doing a bit of PT [physical training] and suddenly there appears a great cloud of dust and up came 50 German tanks. And the Recce regiment, the 11th Hussars, couldn’t raise anybody trying to say they were coming. So everybody had to leap into their tanks and see what we could do. That was May the 26th, 1942.
We lost a lot of tanks. The Cruiser tank wasn’t any good, it was built as a light cavalry tank and it only had a two pounder gun because [Prime Minister Winston] Churchill had to make up his mind whether to re-arm the forces. He made the decision to keep what they had, so we had a two pounder and our fellows had to go in to about 500 yards and the Nazi’s were opening up at 1,500. Our casualties were very bad.
Battle of Bir Hakim
It was held by the Free French for weeks and weeks. Rommel threw everything he could at it. It anchored our southern point and it was commanded by a General [Marie-Pierre] Koenig who had a woman driver with him there all the time, she became his mistress. The position was manned mainly by the Foreign Legion and all French colonial troops. They were all from places like Congo and God knows where. But boy, did they fight. They refused to give up. Rommel put every aircraft he had, bombed them and kept sending emissaries in and one came in with a white flag to demand their surrender and he was answered in German! He said, for goodness sake, isn’t there anybody who speaks English? It was a German who was fighting in the [French] Foreign Legion! Unable to resupply them after all the ammo was exhausted, my unit helped to cover their withdrawal one night, with General Koenig being driven by his woman driver.